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Doctor Zhivago and the Russian Revolution


Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago


Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, is a novel written in the 1950s based on the Russian revolutions and civil war during the early twentieth century. Pasternak follows his characters through their experiences during this great time of history, and through their experiences he expresses various views and experiences of the time. Doctor Zhivago is written from the perspective of post-Stalinism and often times it is clear that this would not have been able to be published any earlier than it was because of the sometimes critical nature of the book. In pre-Stalinism the ideals of the revolutionaries led to such fervor that they impacted the lives of everyone.

The Russian revolution had four stages. The pre-revolution stage is outlined by the Revolution of 1905 and the beginning of World War I. The early revolution stage is outlined by the middle to the end of Russian involvement in World War I and the beginning of the Russian Civil War. The late revolution stage is outlined by the rest of the Russian Civil War. Finally, the post-revolution stage is outlined by the aftermath of the civil war. Each stage of the revolution impacted the Russian people in a different way.


The ideology of the revolutionaries shifted based on what stage the revolution was in. In the pre-revolutionary stage the revolutionaries wanted a bigger voice in politics, food, and better working conditions. They began by meeting secretly underground to organize strikes and other types of activism. Meetings such as these eventually led to the Revolution of 1905. As a result of the revolution, the Tsar presented the people with the October Manifesto, giving in to many of the demands of the revolutionaries.

At this time birth, wealth, and education decided where you would go in life. Civilians spent their time philosophizing with one another and attending social events. There was no embarrassment about having more than someone else, that was just simply how it was. Each person had their own place and needed to remember what it was. Culture was on the rise, and concerts like the Gromekos’ were held in the houses of the wealthy. Formal etiquette was followed about how to address your superiors, strangers, and your friends.The upper-class people felt a sense of duty to look after those less fortunate. Pasternak’s characters, Yurii and Pasha, were both orphaned and subsequently taken in under the kindness of other upper class people.

When the Russians joined World War I, the Tsar called upon his people to fight in his army. Some joined willingly, like Pasternak’s character Pasha Antipov, who joined as an escape from his provincial life, while others used the army as a way to rise up beyond the social class previously allowed to them. In the army, soldiers moved up in the ranks based on merit and work ethic rather than wealth or position. In the case of Galuin, he was able to rise up to an officer position and was put in charge of his former employer, a drunk-Khudoleiev who used to beat him. Once in this happened, Galuin used his position to exact revenge on his oppressor. In moments like this, the ideology and motives of those in the army changed, and this began the early revolution stage.

Early Revolution

The early stage of the revolution is marked by the ideology of equality. Men began to reject their oppressors, namely the Tsar and his regime. The revolution began in the army. Pasternak seems to suggest that the military gave the revolutionary a gun and taught him how to use it. After which, a passion for fighting developed; his weapon gave him a sense of power. And he wanted that power for himself. Mutinies undermined Tsarist leaders of the army. The slogan for this in Pasternak’s book is “Turn your bayonets against your masters,” and the revolutionaries did just that. In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak gives an example of this when he gives the account of Gints the Cossack officer and Pamphil the Red soldier, who was at the time acting under Kerensky. Gints was a youthful officer hoping to persuade the rebels to come to their senses and stop their revolutionary madness. He had the choice to escape his death but rather chose to be honorable and face the crowd, this part symbolizes the patriarchal values of the aristocratic class. The boldness of his actions stopped and impressed the crowd of soldiers-showing that at this point, maybe if the government had strong enough leadership and organization, it might have been able to stop the revolution. In his attempt to be noble, Gints falls on the water butt and lost his upper hand. The soldiers laughed at him, Pamphil shot him, and the revolutionaries thrust him with their bayonets.Metaphorically this shows how far the Tsarist regime had fallen in the eyes of the people and the firm foothold of the revolution.

However, the revolutionists, at this point, were content to follow the typical Marxist pattern of progress. The next step would be capitalism. While extremists called for the upheaval of the old system the general consensus believed, as shown by Yurii Zhivago that “this is not the moment to start dangerous experiments.”Doctor Zhivago is also used to exemplify the average attitude to the revolution, as a whole in, its early stages. He is loyal to the February Revolution because it went along with the ideals of progress set up by the 1905 Revolution and followed by the revitalization of culture after. This new revolution held the promise to give more freedom and power to the people. The upper and middle classes adopted this by rejecting their previous frivolity. They no longer held fancy parties with large quantities of food and liquor. Supplies became limited due to the war and even the most privileged previously had to obtain things like alcohol on the black market. They also began to recognize other excesses in their lives like the amounts of servants they employed or the number of rooms in their homes. Quoting from Pasternak, people began to believe that “an unshared happiness is not happiness.” Working and living humbly started to become their primary focus.

The revolutionaries’ ideology was fairly easily shifted from here even further to the left. When socialistic principles, previously only held by extremists were slowly phased in, people took advantage of what they had to offer. Zhivago and his family set off to Varykino in order to get some part of the new division of land. They hoped to get part of the land that had belonged to the Kruegers. Around the same time, more people began to be persuaded to the Bolshevik way of thinking that socialism was the best solution for Russia. Pasternak’s character, Nikolai Nikolaievich is one of the first to express the views of the Bolsheviks, stating “you know perfectly well that it’s quite useless tinkering with the old structure, you have to dig right down to the foundations.”Another character, Pogorevshik-the blind revolutionary Yurii meets on the train, uses the same foundations metaphor, claiming:

All this destruction—it’s a natural and preliminary stage of a broad creative plan. Society has not yet disintegrated sufficiently. It must fall to pieces completely, then a genuinely revolutionary government will put the pieces together and build on completely new foundations.

They became fanatical and the two opposing sides are formed, the Mensheviks-those who believe that capitalism must come first and the Bolsheviks-those who want socialism immediately. The civil war began: the Red Army versus the White army. Citizens once one the same level found themselves on opposite sides. Even families were divided on this issue. In Zhivago’s hospital, the doctors were divided. He was criticized on both ends, on the right for being too “obtuse” and on the left for not being “red enough”.

While socialism had its appeal the people with the redistribution of land, government control of resources, distribution of food, and promised equality, it also had its downfalls. These downfalls led to the people of the Bolshevik party to cheat on their beliefs. In some cases government officials were forced into corruption to help their friends to survive. In Pasternak’s book, multiple families in Yuratin and its surrounding area depend on the extra goods they receive from Samdeviatov. Also, although Yurii’s family had planned on gardening once they got to Varykino, they were forced to do so to keep at subsistence, despite the outlaw of using land for personal gain-even in the shape of a garden. As a result of the middle class reputation as the oppressing force, phrases like “‘bourgeois’ and ‘petty bourgeois’ have become terms of abuse.”[14] This bred hatred for the middle class and even made it dangerous to admit that one was educated, or in Zhivago’s case, that he was a doctor. It was also dangerous to acknowledge family ties to the old wealthy families of Russia. Tonia was jeered at, with the people claiming that she supported the Whites because it was obvious that she was related to Krueger. As Pasternak suggests in his book it became necessary for people to “stay in the background and keep quiet.” The Russian Civil war was very brutal and either side took to torturing the captives of the other side. These factors, the constant turn-over of the government and the violence of the civil war disheartened people from the revolution.

Screenshot from trailer for the film Doctor Zhivago.

Screenshot from trailer for the film Doctor Zhivago.

Late Revolution

The late revolution stage is blotched by war and strife. The pressures of the revolution begin to overtake the revolutionaries at this stage and the ideals of the group begin to get lost. The character, Liberius-the leader of the Forest Brotherhood, attempts to co-op the loss of morals due to the longevity and hopelessness of the civil war by hosting meetings with his comrades. In these meetings he lists the positive outcomes coming up in the near future and the magnitude of what they are fighting for in order to boost morale. In these meetings he also sets guidelines of how the comrade foresters are supposed to act. He encourages them not to get drunk, have sex, or swear. He does this in order for the soldiers to keep their focus on the task ahead and to remain organized for the remainder of the war. The soldiers, near the end of their rope, do not heed his advice, and eventually it is observed that insanity becomes contagious.

Pasternak uses one case of insanity caused by the revolution to exemplify the extent of which it may have existed in real life. The character, Pamphil, has fought in both World War I and the Russian Civil War. He has become afraid that because he is fighting for the Red Army, that the White Army (who along with the Red Army have become known for their violent torture of the enemy and their supporters) will capture his family and make them pay for him fighting in the war. Yurii is asked to try to help him because he has reached insomnia and hallucinations in his insanity. Pamphil is briefly reunited with his family and his symptoms get better during that time. Soon, however, he learns that the refugees will be sent away to another area. As a result, his symptoms begin to reoccur, and in the end he murders his family with his ax so that they will not have to face the atrocities of the White Army.

In Pasternak’s novel, no one is untouched by the harsh realities of the revolution. Towns are burned and pillaged. Women and children have been raped and beaten. Almost everything that resembled civilization is gone. And even the moral Liberius becomes corrupted by the revolution and has Vdovichenko killed simply because his influence had begun to compete with his own. When Zhivago is finally able to escape from the Forest Brotherhood, he witnesses that the chaos has spread beyond the battle lines. Transportation has been stopped and as a result he is forced to walk all the way back to Varykino to try and reunite with his family and Lara. He finds that the conditions for the civilians are very bad. Some people have been forced to resort to cannibalism and he comments that “the laws of human civilization were suspended.”

Russian coin commemorating the October Revolution depicting the rise of the worker.

Russian coin commemorating the October Revolution depicting the rise of the worker.


In the last stage, the post-revolution stage, a new order is slowly but surely established. In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, the Red army came out on top. This led the way for the Bolshevik party to enter in and officially take charge of the Russian government. The new government used propaganda in order to keep the people in check. The character, Zhivago, encounters such a form of propaganda when he returns to the Urals.

Zhivago knows the importance of these bulletins because of the ever changing regulations of the government. What was true one day may not be true the next. Pasternak’s views are clear, “it was no trifling matter in those days to be ignorant of the regulations; it might cost you your life.” The ideology of the Bolshevik government is a continuation of their previous revolutionary ideals, except that they have morphed over the course of time and do not work out how they had promised they would. Even after the revolution, people are scared to talk in front of others out of fear of being turned in. Zhivago is told, “speech is silver, silence is gold” as a warning to him to be careful about who he talks to about what.

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In order to redistribute goods, the Soviets have all the goods shipped to Moscow. Often times, like Pasternak’s exemplification of Yuriatin, little to nothing was returned for them to use. The people began to live in deep poverty. Even when the Soviet government saw this error and tried to deal with it they were forced to contradict their branch of socialism by implementing the New Economic Plan (NEP). The NEP allowed for some forms of capitalistic competition in Russia.

Promises of progress were waitlisted, and the people once again began to be dissatisfied. The people began to become nostalgic about the past. Yet any audible grievances about the government were savagely dealt with by the Cheka. Pasternak’s character, Mikulitsyn’s sister, warns that one was unable to argue with them because “whatever you say, they are on the side of the common people, that’s their strength." As a result, people begin to do just what they can to blend in. To do so, comrades needed to show a deep desire to want to work and “new ideas”-as long as they agree with the views of the government. Doctor Zhivago, in accordance with the Russian revolution, begins with the people fighting against an authoritarian regime, and ends with the same people living passively within another authoritarian regime.


In conclusion, the Russian revolution, as exemplified by the perspective of Boris Pasternak in his novel, Doctor Zhivago, took place in four stages. Each with different ideological views depending on what stage the people were in: the pre-revolution stage, the early revolution stage, they late revolution stage, or the post-revolution stage. The pre-revolution stage occurred before and during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and into the beginning of Russian involvement in World War I. The early revolution stage occurred during the middle and the end of Russian involvement in World War I and into the beginning of the Russian Civil War. The late revolution stage occurred during the disheartening of the people in the middle and end of the Russian Civil War. The post-revolution stage occurred during the aftermath of the revolution. Each of the four stages brought about different responses from the people. Responses to each of the stages were exemplified by the characters in Doctor Zhivago. Everyone was affected by the Russian Revolution. There was no hiding from it.


Lewis Sckolnick from New England on October 12, 2016:

Lewis B. Sckolnick

130 Rattlesnake Gutter Road, Suite 1000, Leverett, MA 01054-9726 U.S.A.

Telephone 1. 413. 367. 0303 ● Facsimile 1. 413. 367. 0303 ● ● twitter @lewisxxxusa

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Peter Englund

The novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was plagiarized from the novel White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov. Pasternak told many people that he was going to write a great novel but he never did. When Pasternak was asked for the early manuscript of Doctor Zhivago he told that none existed. Many of Pasternak’s papers are in the Friendship Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, not a very convenient location. Mikhail Bulgakov was a medical doctor who did most of his practice prior to 1921. His novel White Guard like Doctor Zhivago opens with the death of the mother of the main character in that case Alexei Turbin. I have found more than thirty points of comparison between the two works. The first two thirds of White Guard appeared in two issues of the journal Russia during the spring of 1925 and the remainder was kept from print by Stalin. White Guard appeared in book form in 1961. Pasternak was a neighbor of Bulgakov’s in the 1920s so he was able to hear Bulgakov read the sections of the novel as he completed them.

In Chapter 13 of Doctor Zhivago Yuri Zhivago returns to Yuriatin and is taken care of by Lara in her home and we see Lara at Section 9 of that chapter and later. In the English translation of White Guard by Marian Schwartz Alexei Turbin is taken care of by Yuliya in her home beginning at the top of page 213 and going to Section 14 in the middle of page 222.

All things medical that Doctor Yuri Zhivago does in the novel Doctor Zhivago, Dr. Mikhail Bulgakov did in real life as a medical doctor.

Without White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov there would be no Doctor Zhivago!



Lewis B. Sckolnick

The Ledge House, Leverett,

16 December 2012


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Meredith Loughran from Florida on February 05, 2014:

Hello enewcomer. I saw found this hub as a Rising Star Candidate! Best of luck to you! I've never read Doctor Zhivago. Actually, I have vague memories of my mother watching the movie. Now that I have a better understanding of what it's about I may have to find it on Netflix! Thank you for the informative hub. :)

Darkproxy from Ohio on October 08, 2013:

A very interesting piece of work covering the Russian revolution

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